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Barca Blaugranes La Liga Preview, Part 1: Alavés, Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo, Eibar, Espanyol

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A team-by-team look at the 2019/20 season of the Spanish League

RC Celta de Vigo v Rayo Vallecano de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

It’s that time again.

Another World Cup, a Copa América and an Africa Cup of Nations have conspired to guide us through that unrelenting gauntlet that is Neymar and Paul Pogba rumors and the truly awesome, fantastic and spectacular International Champions Cup.

But, we’ve made it! Well, almost. The Premier League kicked off over the weekend, and La Liga will get the ball rolling in a matter of days. This season’s opener, taking place on Friday, August 16, has the Blaugrana paying their annual visit to San Mamés, to square off against Athletic Bilbao.

As the weekend approaches, it’s once again time to examine the participants in the upcoming La Liga campaign.

As before, in the interest of our collective sanity, we’ll tackle this this task in installments.

However, in a deviation from the format of a year ago, this time we’ll be employing a simpler approach and running through the presumptive bottom-15 in alphabetical order, five at a time.

Please note, however, that the five biggest clubs – Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia and the Madrids (Atlético and Real) – will be addressed in the final batch, as theirs are the lineups most likely to be dramatically impacted by ongoing transfer activity. Let’s get started, shall we?


Sevilla FC v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

Alavés

Established: 1921

City: Vitoria Gasteiz, Álava, Basque Country (501 km / 311 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Mendizorrotza (19,840)

Coach: Asier Garitano

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Lucas Pérez, CF (€2.3m, from West Ham United); Joselu, CF (€2.24m, from Newcastle United); Ramón Miérez, CF (€2.24m, from Tigre, in Argentina); Pere Pons, DM (€2m, from Girona); Luis Rioja, LW (€2m, from Almería); Saúl García, LB (free transfer, from Deportivo La Coruña); Aleix Vidal, RW (on loan from Sevilla); Jeando Fuchs, DM (undisclosed fee, from Sochaux, in France)

Departures: Jonathan Calleri, CF (end of loan – returned to Deportivo Maldonado, in Uruguay – could return); Borja Bastón, CF (end of loan – returned to Swansea City); Takashi Inui, LW (end of loan – returned to Eibar); Carlos Vigaray, RB (free transfer, to Real Zaragoza); Darko Brasanac, CM (end of loan – returned to Real Betis)

Where we’ve been…

Last season’s preview of Espanyol began as follows: “Espanyol managed a seemingly respectable eleventh-place finish in 2017-18, on 51 points. A closer look, however, reveals some very real reasons for concern…”

Alavés managed a seemingly respectable eleventh-place finish in 2018-19, on 50 points. A closer look, however, reveals some very real reasons for concern. The team only managed to find the net 39 times in 38 league games, the fourth-lowest total in La Liga. Their tally was two fewer than relegated Rayo Vallecano, and better only than notable thrill-mongers Leganés, relegated Girona and probably-should-have been-relegated Valladolid.

It’s astonishing how little of that needed to be changed. Perhaps the craziest part of the 2018-19 season for Alavés is that, despite performing at a near-relegation-worthy level for much of the season, their league position was never no worse than eleventh and, over the 25-week stretch between their fifth and twenty-ninth games of the season, they spent 18 weeks in the top five and were never worse than seventh.

However, their leading scorer, Jonathan Calleri, managed just nine goals. Worse yet, he is, for the time-being, back with Deportivo Maldonado, in Uruguay, pending Alavés’ ability to strike a deal to bring him back on loan.

Borja Bastón, their only other player to hit the net more than four times, is back with Swansea City, following the end of his loan spell.

Now, reinforcements have been brought in, but suffice it to say their respective track records are less than enthralling.

Lucas Pérez has appeared in 62 games over the past three seasons, with Arsenal and West Ham in the Premier League, as well as with Deportivo La Coruña — scoring 13 goals.

Joselu has taken the field 88 times over the past four years — also with Deportivo, as well as with a pair of English clubs, Stoke City and Newcastle United — scoring 15 goals.

Finally, there’s Ramón Miérez, a 22-year-old Argentine who’s last four seasons have consisted of four goals in 30 appearances (5 starts) over three seasons with Tigre in Argentina, and 10 in 22 appearances last season with Istra 1961 in Croatia. Oof.

On the bright side, midfield playmaker Jony, facilitator of an outstanding 11 goals last season and scorer of another four himself, is back, as are defensive anchors Victor Laguardia (provided he’s still there), Rúben Duarte, Ximo Navarro and goalkeeper Fernando Pacheco.

Beyond that, the additions of Pere Pons and Aleix Vidal should provide much-need stability, maturity and top-flight experience.

Where we’re going…

Barring a heavy dose of the unforeseen, Alavés are not going to score a great many goals. In fact, this team is seemingly less equipped to light up the scoreboard than last season’s attack-challenged crew.

Given this, the pressure to replicate last season’s white-knuckle defensive record (31 points in the 30 games in which the opposition scored, and a single point from the 12 games in which they allowed multiple goals) will be immense, with little margin for error. I’m not saying that these guys are going down. I am also not not saying that. Either way, there will be flirtation with the drop zone.


Racing Santander v Athletic de Bilbao - Club Friendly Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Athletic Bilbao

Established: 1898

City: Bilbao (610 km / 379 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): San Mamés (53,289)

Coach: Gaizka Garitano

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Gaizka Larrazabal, RW (promoted from Bilbao Athletic); Peru Nolaskoain, CB (promoted from Bilbao Athletic); Andoni López, LB (end of loan – returns from Almería); Cristian Ganea, LB (end of loan – returns from Numancia); Mikel Vesga, DM (end of loan – returns from Leganés)

Departures: Alex Remiro, GK (free transfer, to Real Sociedad); Ander Iturraspe, DM (free transfer, to Espanyol); Sabin Merino, LW (loan to Leganés made permanent on a free transfer); Mikel Rico, CM (free transfer, to Huesca); Markel Susaeta, RW (end of contract)

Where we’ve been…

It’s been strange couple of years for Bilbao. In consecutive summers (2017 and 2018) Athletic watched as two of the club’s top talents were forcibly transformed into gigantic piles of cash.

Your typical club would likely be delighted at the prospect of pocketing €145 million for a good-but-not-world-beating center-back/goalkeeper duo (at the time) in Kepa Arrizabalaga and Aymeric Laporte.

Alas, bound by a cantera policy that precludes them form signing players of non-Basque origin, Athletic were rather limited in its options for redeploying these funds.

On the heels of each of these forced adjustments, Athletic embarked on a frustrating roller coaster of a season.

In 2017-18, Bilbao hung around mid-table for the vast majority of the season before nosediving to a sixteenth-place finish.

Last season, after an unremarkable opening month, Los Leones plummeted. After a win in their season opener followed by three consecutive draws, Bilbao managed all of five points from their next 10 games, failed to register their second victory of the season until December, and spent 14 consecutive weeks – from the season’s sixth game through its nineteenth – no higher than 15th in the table, and 10 of them in the league’s bottom four.

This time, however, a total flipping of the script worked in Bilbao’s favor, as the team racked up 42 points in its final 24 games (a 66.5-point pace), keeping nine clean sheets and allowing only a single goal on nine other occasions.

When all was said and done, Los Leones landed in eighth place, on 53 points, despite a paltry 41 goals and a -4 goal difference.

Based on expected goals/points, this was a thoroughly mid-table team, with the numbers suggesting that Bilbao played to the level of a 50-point team.

Where we’re going…

Given the goings-on of recent summer, fans in Bilbao are presumably thrilled with a boring summer.

The club returns its top three scorers and “assisters” from last season – Iñaki Williams (12 goals and 4 assists), Raúl García (9 and 3) and Iker Muniain (7 and 3), as well as the backbone of a truly stellar defense (Yuri Berchiche, Iñigo Martínez and Yeray Álvarez).

This summer’s losses in the transfer market – stalwarts Markel Susaeta and Mikel Rico – will probably be felt more in the heart strings than on the pitch.

It’s tempting to look back on Bilbao’s whipsaw performances over the past two seasons and conclude that this team is unlikely to maintain the top-five-ish form with which it closed out 2018-19.

However, 24 games of sustained excellent play is not a fluke, and given the continuity both on defense and in attack heading into 2019-20, it would not be shocking to see Athletic Bilbao approach 60 points and secure a spot in Europe.


Levante v FC Barcelona - Copa del Rey Round of 16 Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Celta Vigo

Established: 1923

City: Vigo, Galicia (1,153 km / 716 miles west of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Estadio Municipal de Balaídos (or Abanca-Balaídos) (29,000)

Coach: Fran Escribá

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Denis Suárez, CM (€12.9m, from Barcelona); Joseph Aidoo, CB (€8m, from Genk, in Belgium); Jorge Sáenz, CB (loan, from Valencia); Santi Mina, CF (free transfer, from Valencia); Iván Villar, GK (promoted from Celta Vigo B); Claudio Beauvue, RW (end of loan – returns from SM Caen, in France)

Departures: Maxi Gómez, CF (€14.5m, to Valencia); Mathias Jensen, CM (€3.8m, to Brentford); Gustavo Cabral, CB (free transfer, to Pachuca, in Mexico); Emre Mor, RW (loaned to Galatasaray); Ryad Boudebouz, AM (end of loan – returned to Real Betis); Sofiane Boufal, LW (end of loan – Southampton)

Where we’ve been…

Well, that was a harrowing ride! Year in, year out, much is made (rightfully, to be fair) of Barcelona’s often extreme reliance on the efforts of Lionel Messi. Last season in the northwest, Iago Aspas did an equally good line in correlative success, saving a Celta side that simply failed to function in his absence.

Aspas started the season’s first 17 games, during which he scored 10 goals and Celta captured a solidly mid-table 21 points.

A calf injury limited him to 24 minutes of action over the next 11 games, during which Celta managed eight goals and amassed four points. That, my friends, extrapolates to just under 14 points over an entire season.

Aspas returned to the lineup on March 30, with Celta sitting 18th in the table and hurtling toward relegation. It took just 15 minutes for visiting Villarreal to open up a 2-0 lead against their hapless hosts. That lead would hold until just after halftime, when – for both that game and Celta’s season – the worm emphatically turned. Five minutes after the break, Aspas buried a free kick from just outside the box, halving the deficit and restoring a modicum of hope for the home fans. About 20 minutes later, Maxi Gómez equalized, setting up a finish that would explode with drama and emotion. With less than five minutes remaining Celta won a penalty, and an opportunity to complete the unlikeliest of remontadas. Aspas stepped up and, predictably, slotted home to secure all three points. After the game Balaídos was awash, in rain, in jubilant tears, and in the belief that the season could yet be saved.

Aspas started eight of the season’s remaining nine games, scoring eight goals and leading Celta to three wins, four draws (including a 3-3 in their next game, in which they’d trailed 3-1), and the safety of 17th place.

For those keeping score, Iago Aspas started 26 games last season. In those games, he scored 20 goals and Celta de Vigo captured 37 points.

Twelve times he did not start. In those games Celta won once, drew once and lost 10 times.

Aspasdependencia, AMIRITE?!

Where we’re going…

Maxi Gómez, unfortunately, is gone, having taken his 13 goals and five assists to Valencia. Also gone is Sofiane Boufal, who provided nearly 2,700 solid minutes in midfield.

If we’ve learned anything, however, it is that where there is Iago Aspas, there is hope for Celta.

Good news – Iago is still here. Also returning is rising star Brais Méndez, who, at age 21, was responsible for 13 goals (scoring six and assisting on seven) and served as the team’s best playmaker.

Joining them is a trio that should make up for the losses of Gómez and Boufal: ex-Barcelona man and Arsenal loanee Denis Suárez, ex-Valencia striker Santi Mina, and a solid young defender, Joseph Aidoo, from Belgian side Genk.

Until reality proves otherwise, we must assume that Celta’s fortunes are inextricably tied to the availability of Iago Aspas.

That said, the club has done well to bolster the cast around him. Given the talent and top-level experience on hand, a far less terrifying journey, destined for the middle third of the table, likely awaits.


Eibar v Las Palmas - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Eibar

Established: 1940

City: Eibar, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country (551 km / 342 miles northwest of Barcelona)

Stadium (Capacity): Ipurua (7,083)

Coach: José Luis Mendilibar

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Edu Expósito, CM (€4m, from Deportivo La Coruña); Quique, CF (€3.3m, from Deportivo La Coruña); Roberto Olabe, CM (€2.8m, from Atlético Madrid B); Takashi Inui, LW (€2m, from Real Betis); Esteban Burgos, CB (free transfer, from Alcorcón); Rober Correa, RB (free transfer, from Cádiz); Álvaro Tejero, RB (free transfer, from Real Madrid Castilla); José Antonio Martinez, CB (end of loan – returns from Granda)

Departures: Joan Jordán, CM (€14m, to Sevilla); Rubén Peña, RB (€8m, to Villarreal); Marc Cucurella, LB (end of loan – sold back to Barcelona for €4m); Pablo Hervías, RW (loan to Valladolid made permanent for a fee of €1m); Pere Milla, LW (free transfer, to Elche)

Where we’ve been…

What to make of this past Eibar season? They scored 46 goals, conceded 50, only won consecutive games once, and lost consecutive games twice, en route to 47 points a 12th-place finish.

They sat between 10th and 15th in the league table after 35 of 38 matchdays. They had seven players score at least three goals and their leading scorer, Charles, netted a respectable 14 times. They were fine. Totally acceptable. Perfectly, inoffensively adequate.

On the other hand, if you find reality a bit tedious and prefer to base your analysis on stuff that could have happened, Eibar 2018-19 becomes far more compelling.

Had the season shaken out as “deserved” (because that’s totally how the world works), Eibar would have ranked near the top of the league. Based on expected goals and points (standard disclaimer: your faith in these numbers may vary), real-life Eibar scored nearly 11 goals and conceded roughly 10 more than Math Eibar “deserved” to have.

In short, the underlying performance that yielded 47 points, a -4 goal difference and a twelfth-place finish ought to have generated 56.8 points, a +9 goal difference and fifth-place finish.

Yowza.

Where we’re going…

The degree to which any of what happened last season is predictive is certainly up for debate. So, too, is the sustainability of that performance in the absence of their best midfield playmaker, Joan Jordán, a key contributor on the right side, Rubén Peña, and the pace and dynamism of Marc Cucurella on the left wing. That’s a fair bit of talent and experience heading out the door.

On the bright side, the club looks to have done a decent job of plugging the holes. They raided Deportivo La Coruña, coming away with both a midfield playmaker (Edu Expósito) and their top scorer (Quique, who scored 16 goals in the Segunda last season), brought back Takashi Inui to take Cucurella’s place on the left wing, and addressed the back line via free transfers for Cádiz’s best defender, Rober Correa, and Real Madrid Castilla’s Álvaro Tejero.

From a raw talent perspective, 2019-20 Eibar have a stockpile comparable to that of last season’s squad. That the club is relying on smooth transitions at multiple vital positions could be a concern, but each departure has been addressed via the acquisition of an experienced and talented professional, and there are seemingly no glaring holes on the roster.

Eibar are, in fact, probably a bit better than last season’s results would suggest, though a run at Europe may be a bridge too far.


RCD Espanyol v Stjarnan - Europa League Qualification Photo by Joan Valls/Urbanandsport /NurPhoto via Getty Images

Espanyol

Established: 1900

City: Cornellà de Llobregat, Barcelona

Stadium (Capacity): RCDE Stadium (40,000)

Coach: David Gallego

Comings and Goings

Arrivals: Matías Vargas, LW (€10.5m, from Vélez Sarsfield, in Argentina); Ander Iturraspe, DM (free transfer from Athletic Bilbao); Andrés Prieto, GK (free transfer, from Leganés); Bernardo Espinosa, CB (loan, from Girona);

Promotions from Espanyol B: Pol Lozano, CM; Lluis López, CM; Adrià Pedrosa, LB

Departures: Mario Hermoso, CB (€25m, to Atlético Madrid); Óscar Duarte, CB (free transfer, to Levante); Hernán Pérez, RW (free transfer, to Al Ahli, in Qatar); Roberto, GK (free transfer, to West Ham United); Roberto Rosales, RB (end of loan – returned to Màlaga); Alfa Semedo, DM (end of loan – returned to Benfica)

Where we’ve been…

As noted at the beginning of this eight-thousand-word article, there was somewhat of a pessimistic case to made against Espanyol entering last season, and I was more than willing to make it.

In 2017-18, an anemic attack, reliant almost exclusively on one man (Gerard Moreno), managed less than a goal per game and was bailed out by a stingy defense. Then, that guy left. The thinking at the time was that unless then-record-signing Borja Iglesias emerged as a legitimate scoring threat, this team was going to be in serious trouble. And, well, he did.

As Gerard Moreno had been a year earlier, Iglesias was not only Espanyol’s leading goal scorer, he was, by some margin, their only real weapon in attack. Similar to his predecessor, he led the team with 17 goals, more than tripling the tally of his highest-scoring teammate, Sergi Darder (5), with another four players who scored three apiece. Hardly a powerhouse, Espanyol found enough extra goals, at the right moments, to not only offset the loss of Moreno and some modest defensive regression and tread water, but to deliver their best league finish of the past decade-and-a-half. What a difference a handful of goals makes.

This time around, Espanyol managed to find the net 48 times, tied (with Getafe) for ninth in La Liga. The team spent the first third of the season on the fringes of the top five, before bouncing between 10th and 15th for about 20 weeks and then, once again, peaking at the eleventh hour and vaulting up the standings – this time into Europe!

Where we’re going…

On the bright side, Iglesias, their lone goal threat, is still around – for now. The remainder of the attack, while not great, also returns intact, so… continuity? On top of that, new club-record-signing Matías Vargas (80% of his rights acquired for €10.5m), a talented 22-year-old from from Vélez Sarsfield in Argentina, arrives as a welcome reinforcement on the left wing.

Unfortunately, however, the defense that regressed last season to solid mid-table status has taken a couple of big body blows.

Center-back Mario Hermoso, Espanyol’s most reliable defender, if not the team’s best player overall, now plays for Atlético Madrid. Making matters worse, Roberto Rosales, a frequent starter at right-back, is gone, as is replaceable (assuming you actually replace him) depth piece, Óscar Duarte. In their places Espanyol welcomes Bernardo Espinosa, on loan from relegated Girona, youth team promotion Adrià Pedrosa and ex-Bilbao defensive midfielder Ander Iturraspe – who’s now 30 years old and has played a total of 97 competitive minutes since the end of the 2017-18 season.

Even if the squad does not suffer any further losses, it is, once again, tough to see them making much of an impact. As currently constituted, this has the look and feel of a 12th-to-15th-place side, with room to fall if good fortune eludes them.

However, in the event that Real Betis is successful in attempting to relocate Borja Iglesias to Andalusia, the road ahead for Espanyol once again becomes extremely perilous, with – stop me if you’ve heard this before – survival as the primary objective.

So, look forward to seeing these guys in the Champions League in 2020.